Virtually everyone agrees that on September 11 something significant happened, and its reverberations are felt by citizens and journalists alike. Yet for those whose job it is to report news of this event it has been difficult to name this “something” and figure out how to talk about the events of that day and their aftermath. This dilemma of language persists despite the immense visibility, dramatic scale, and far-reaching dimensions of the events and despite the flood of words generated in print, online and on the air.
The notion that what happened is “beyond words” has become, in fact, the dominant theme in the news and public commentary. Words like “indescribable,” “inexpressible,” “unspeakable,” “inexplicable” and “unimaginable” are employed when more precise, descriptive words seem inadequate to the task. A headline on a column by Ellen Goodman reads: “At Times Like This, Words Fail.” At “The Days After,” a Web site created by the University of Chicago Press, the homepage begins, “At the moment of catastrophe we fall silent. Language fails.” On television, a young San Francisco artist, who is trying to create a work of art to capture the emotion of the experience, says that September 11 lies “out of the reaches of grammar.” Even Nobel laureate Toni Morrison expresses this theme in a eulogy appearing in a special edition of Vanity Fair: “To speak to you, the dead of September…I must be steady and I must be clear, knowing all the time that I have nothing to say—no words stronger than the steel that pressed you into itself; no scripture older or more elegant than the ancient atoms you have become.”
This theme exposes a very natural reaction in the short term. But, in the long term, it can become a dangerous assumption. By accepting language’s failure, we surrender our understanding and the complex meaning of events to silence or, perhaps worse, to the ready-made, sometimes muddled, sometimes manipulative words of others. James Baldwin writes, “People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate. (And if they cannot articulate it, they are submerged.)”
We must find ways to articulate this experience, both as individuals and as a society. Not to do this is to miss the full meaning of what happened and is happening now. Or, if we fail to name what we have experienced, we might be overwhelmed by the sheer terror and horror of the wordless visual images of towers collapsing and people holding hands as they jump from windows. It is hard work to get the words right, but we should not be willing to settle for the language of cheap sentiment or agenda-laden ideologies.
Language always matters. Words signal more than their simple dictionary denotations; key terms and metaphors help us to construct a framework of connotations, historical associations, and cultural implications, as well as offer us guidance in connecting concepts and generating actions. Take, for example, “Ground Zero,” the phrase used to designate the site of the destroyed World Trade Center. This term is rooted in the first uses of atomic weapons in the mid-1940’s and refers to the point of detonation of a nuclear explosion or the point of impact of a missile. This term doesn’t accurately convey what happened, although it might reflect our horrified sense of the devastating results—a degree of destruction and mass dissolution to match our worst 20th century nightmares of nuclear war. At other times, this site is also referred to as “The Zone” and “The Ruins.” Zones suggest war zones, of course, and ruins are associated with the disconcerting notion of societies in decay or cultures in decline. Do these words tell us the story that we believe we are experiencing?
Other examples can be found in the confused clusters of words related to “war,” “crime” and “terrorism.” Are the events of September 11 described best as acts of war? Or are they crimes, as Hendrik Hertzberg has argued in The New Yorker? Perhaps they are crimes against humanity, as others suggest. Whether acts of war or crimes, are the people who committed these acts best called “terrorists?” Or do we agree with Reuters—which cautioned its correspondents against indiscriminate use of this loaded word—that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter?”
In his address to a joint session of Congress on September 20, President George W. Bush variously referred to these men as “terrorists,” “our enemies,” “enemies of freedom,” and “murderers.” In a key opening sentence, Bush cast the dilemma this way: “Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.” This demonstrates the neatly turned phrase that speechwriters love; a classical rhetorician would call it “antimetabole,” or an artful repetition of words in reverse grammatical order.
To “bring justice to our enemies” invokes the language of war. Even the words “a new kind of war” suggest military action, with an associated framework of words and deeds—enemies, ground troops, battlefields, frontlines, attacks and counterattacks, bombing strikes, collateral damage, retreats, cease-fires, victories and defeats. In contrast, when we think of bringing criminals (not “enemies”) to justice, we invoke the notion of a police action, and this carries with it a very different framework of terms and actions—perpetrators, victims, detectives, crime scenes, investigations, interrogations, witnesses, arrests, evidence and testimony, trials and sentences or acquittals.
By using this overlapping language as he did, President Bush implied that words don’t matter. But, of course, they do matter. To confuse language reflects perhaps a confused situation, perhaps confused thinking.
In a 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell calls on everyone—not just professional writers—to care about how language is used in public life. It’s an argument for civic engagement that is easy to agree with but hard to realize in practical terms. Journalists have a unique challenge, and perhaps bear a special responsibility, to help people—through the careful, logically consistent use of language—find ways to articulate what our shared experience has been.
Journalists don’t necessarily know all the ways to do this but they are, by vocation and avocation, people who should have a special care for words and know how to generate them and analyze them. Most of all, because journalists often provide our first link in connecting individual experience to the broader perspective of society, they need to take seriously the implications of their rhetorical choices. When journalists’ impulse is to describe a news event as “indescribable,” perhaps they should pause and remind themselves that language does matter and the exacting search for words should not be abandoned.
Beverly C. Wall is an associate professor and director of the Allan K. Smith Center for Writing & Rhetoric at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. She is founder of the Intercollegiate E-Democracy Project and has been a commentator on political rhetoric and the media for C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal,” Reuters, BBC Radio London, and National Public Radio’s “The Connection.”